Let's Not Call Them 'Games': Changing Vocabulary So Everyone Can Play

This is the script for my presentation at the 2015 Fitchburg State Undergraduate Research Conference. Obviously during the actual presentation I strayed a bit but enjoy!


What do we think of when we think of ‘Games’? Specifically ‘video games’. Well, we think of a lot of things: bros playing Call of Duty in their dorm, elderly people playing Wii Sports, Nerds playing World of Warcraft from their mother’s basement, etcetera. There is no one formal definition of what a game is, but there are many societal expectations of what they are, and are not.

Those who don’t play a lot of games think of them as fun ways to pass the time: playing Candy Crush at the bus stop or children playing Pokémon.

The stereotype of those who play games often – straight, white males age 14-24 – think games are challenges to overcome, escapist fantasies, and ways to prove your skill.

Developers and Academics think of games in more concrete terms like rule-sets, win-states and fail-states – a game can be won or lost, and “traditional interest curves”, the so-called three-act structure for games.

So between all these different ideas there are a lot of connotations that come with the word ‘game’.

Ultimately we can boil our working definition of ‘games’ down to “digital activities” that:

What I want to do today is show you some things that we call ‘games’, but that don’t fit our definition; these are ‘games’ that defy expectations and sometimes even description, but are all interactive pieces of art and, above that, are meaningful.


80 Days by Inkle Studios

80 Days is the reason I’m giving this presentation at all – I wanted to tell my dad about the amazing experience I had just finished; when I started my sentence off with “it’s a game where you blah blah blah”, he was politely disinterested; but a few sentences later when I described the game as what it really is – interactive fiction – his ears perked up.

80 Days is an interactive adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, where the player is the valet for the eccentric gentleman Phileas Fogg, who has placed a bet that he can travel around the world in eighty days, with your help.

80 Days is a perfect example of the kind of ‘game’ that anyone can play – the game is really a choose-your-own-adventure book – the only mechanic is reading and then making decisions about who to talk to, what to do, and where to go, so it’s not a “hard” game, though you can still lose. The ‘game’ can be played in bite-sized chunks or for hours at a time, over and over again while still finding new stories. It’s also only five bucks.

Of the examples I’m using today, 80 Days is the most accessible and also the brightest of them – I want to move into talking about more serious games because are the more meaty examples, with more complex ideas and even less recognition by those who don’t play games, and even those who do.


This War of Mine by 11 Bit Studios

This War of Mine is a war game – not a game set in a war, but a game about war. Specifically This War of Mine is about the survivors of war, the refugees of war. What happens when you, the player, become not a bad-ass warrior-soldier or a great strategic commander, but part of a group of civilians trying to survive in the bombed-out remains of their city?

In the ‘game’ you scavenge for food and medicine, try to help your fellow refugees through this terrible crisis, and make decisions that affect everyone around you. The Game requires that the player make choices about who lives and who dies, and gives you very little time to make them. It is an emotionally draining experience, and I would argue it is more emotionally affecting than any movie you can watch, because it is your choices on the screen in front of you, not someone else’s. The artifice of knowing that it’s “just a movie” and that a director will call “cut” does not exist – you don’t know when the game will end, or how it will, or what will be lost in the process.

This War of Mine also did have a more tangible effect on the world – the developers created an expansion pack for the game entitled “War Child”, and the proceeds from that expansion pack went straight to charities that will help change the lives of 350 children refugees from Syria in Jordan and Iraq.

So can a piece of art truly about suffering and hope, that in the real world changed the lives of real people, be “just a game”?


Dys4ia by Auntie Pixelante

The last example I want to use today is my personal favorite, and the game that showed me that games could be so much more than we all think.

Dys4ia is an autobiographical game detailing the experience of a trans-gender woman going through hormone replacement therapy. It’s a digital collage made of ten to thirty-second mini-games that entirely through game-play explain to us feelings that many of us could never imagine. It’s honest, it’s brave, and it takes the player less than ten minutes to experience another person’s life and the struggles they face, better than you ever could simply by reading a book or watching a movie, because again, you are this person; you are operating in the first person and doing the actions yourself, and having actions be done to you – you are being scrutinized and questioned and invaded, and have to somehow make it through.

However, the game is linear – there is only one way to play – and you can’t lose, and it’s not challenging in a traditional, mechanical sense.

These Are Not Fringe

So what I just showed you are three examples of experiences that automatically get labeled as ‘games’ due to their interactive nature, but don’t fit our working societal definition. You don’t win Dys4ia; 80 Days isn’t about mechanical challenge; and This War of Mine is not fun, so why do we call them ‘games’? Why does it matter?

The reason taxonomy and what we call the art we consume is important is because it changes who consumes art, why we consume art, and how we consume art. Media is around us 24/7, 365 days a year, and we have to budget our time wisely; finding art and media that resonates with us personally is a core human experience, and if we say that all ‘games’ are useless things for fun – that they are “just games” – then we dismiss an entire frontier of art and technology to never be of true value, and we dismiss those who make them to be simple entertainers appealing to the lowest common denominators.

You might be thinking that the games I showed today are fringe cases with a small, niche market. But look at all these games that also are not “just games”. There are websites and communities dedicated to finding these pieces of art, and critics and players who love these interactive experiences more than traditional ‘games’, and I would contend that most people would too. And ultimately that’s what I would love to see: people of all ages and backgrounds trying these interactive experiences and finding meaning in them, without the stigma of the word “video games” scaring them away.

So if not for the reasons of integrity of art and human experiences, etcetera, maybe we can consider a different term for these experiences because it makes business sense as well. Very few people will go to a museum to see a “game”; they will however see “Interactive Art”; educators don’t really want “games” in the classroom, but maybe they’d be willing to try “Educational Apps”; therapists won’t tell someone to play a “game”, but they might recommend an “Empathy Engine”.

What I propose is not that we get rid of the term ‘games’ – there are plenty of experiences that clearly are games – but that we create a separate category for the things that are clearly not games, and talk about them separately and in relation to games, much like we do with documentaries and movies, for example. We understand that they are made from the same medium, and use the same techniques, but have completely different purposes. One is entertainment that can be meaningful, and the other is art that deliberately delivers meaning.

But what do we call these new experiences? I have no idea. That word, that colloquialism, has yet to be created and you can’t really force it, especially when the industry and culture that creates them doesn’t yet recognize a lot of those very experiences.

If you’re interested in these experiences, I’ve made a blog post with a list of interactive experiences to get you started.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is this: the next time someone you know attempts to tell you about a game they’ve been playing, try asking what kind of game it is, and listen; you might be introduced to something beautiful, and powerful, and maybe even fun, but that you might not call a “game”.